James Edward Key | SP | 1984-1992
Jimmy Key was born April 22, 1961, in Huntsville, Alabama. In the 3rd round of the 1982 amateur Key was drafted by the Jays out of Clemson University. He very quickly rose to the Majors, making the Jays out of spring training in 1984. They had him pitch out of the bullpen that season. Back then, the Jays tended to use first-year pitchers in the pen, figuring that was the best way to teach them how to pitch in the majors. He quickly became part of a closer-by-committee group, which manager Bobby Cox used. He was tied for the team lead in saves with 10, with Roy Lee Jackson. Dennis Lamp had 9 that year. The Jays finished 2nd to the Tigers that season, but 15 games back. There wasn’t a pennant race that season. Detroit jumped out with a great start and never slowed down.
The following season, 1985, Jimmy started the rotation and stayed there for the next eight seasons. He was amazingly consistent, winning between 12 and 17 games each year. In ‘85 Key went 14-6 and made the All-Star team. He was 4th in the AL in ERA at 3.00. Had he not pitched a few too many innings in 1984, he would have been a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year. Also, in 1985 we made the postseason for the first time, losing out to the Royals in 7 games. Key started game two that the jays lost in extra innings and started game 5, taking the loss in a 2-0 game.
On June 6th, he took a no-hitter into the 9th inning against the Tigers, when Tom Brookens led off the inning with a single. If you don’t remember Tom Brookens, you aren’t alone. He was a light-hitting third baseman/utility player. I mostly remember him because, back in those days, I bought baseball cards, and Brookens’ card was in every pack. He must have been a really good guy, he played 12 seasons and never cracked a 100 OPS+.We would end up winning this game in 12 on a Buck Martinez home run.
1986 was a small step back for Key (and the team, we finished fourth, at 86-76). Key was 14-11 with a 3.57 ERA. He was our best starter that year.
1987 was Jimmy’s best season with the Jays. He finished 17-8 with a league-leading 2.76 ERA, in 36 starts covering 261 innings, with a 7.4 bWAR (7th best in team history). He had the best WHIP in the AL at 1.057 and the fewest hits per 9 innings at 7.2. 27 or his 36 starts were quality starts. He came in 2nd in the Cy Young voting to Boston’s Roger Clemens and was named The Sporting News AL Pitcher of the Year.
1988 Key missed ten weeks of the season with an elbow injury and surgery; he only made 21 starts but still finished with a 12-5 record.
In 1989 the Jays made the postseason again. Key didn’t have a great record, 13-14 with a 3.88 ERA in 33 starts, but he reached the 8th in 18 of those starts. He started and won game 3 of our ALCS. Unfortunately, that was our only win in a 4-1 series loss to Oakland.
He missed some time again with injuries in 1990 but finished 13-7. In 1991 we made the playoffs again, and Jimmy was a critical piece going 16-12 in 33 starts and with a 3.05 ERA. We again lost out in the ALCS, this time to the Twins. Key had a no-decision in our game, three extra-innings loss. He made the All-Star game again this season and was the winning pitcher in the game, played in Toronto.
In our first World Series season, 1992, Key was 13-13 with a 3.53 ERA in 33 starts during the season. In the ALCS against Oakland, Key pitched out of the pen as we had many great starters. The World Series against Atlanta Key started and won game four, going 7.2 innings of a 2-1 win. He was also the winning pitcher of the series, finishing game six in relief in the 10th inning. We only had two pitchers win in our four wins of that series. Duane Ward was the winning pitcher for our first two wins, and Key won the last two.
After the season, Jimmy became a free agent and signed with the Yankees (I guess no one’s perfect). He played for them for four seasons and got his second World Series ring there in 1996, and he won the deciding series game that year again. After the 1996 season, he again became a free agent and signed with the Orioles. He played there for two seasons before retiring after the 1998 season.
Key had a great 15-year major league career finishing 186-117 with a 3.51 ERA in 389 starts. With the Jays, Key had 116 wins in 250 starts over nine seasons. Not quite a Hall of Famer but an excellent pitcher. If he had a 20 win season or two, he’d have a case for the Hall, and maybe missed a little less time with injuries. His first season as a starter, he didn’t strike out many batters, just 3.6 per 9 innings, but after that, he struck out slightly more than the average pitcher finishing with an average of 5.3 strikeouts a game, but with was never a big strikeout guy. He was a ground ball pitcher and had terrific control. In his career, he only walked 2.3 batters per 9. He was a good fielder and was good at holding the runner at first. Add in that he was very consistent, had great composure, and was durable. He made all his starts almost every year.
Key was not a very big man at 6’1” and 185 pounds and didn’t have an overwhelming fastball. He threw a great curve, spotted the fastball (Bill James called it a batting practice fastball), and had a change and a slider. Rob Neyer had him as the 2nd best Jay’s starter in his ‘Big Book of Baseball Lineups’, but that was before Roy Halladay had much time in. In that book, it lists his nickname as Pee Wee apparently because of a resemblance to Pee Wee Herman.
Jimmy is married and has children. He is an avid golfer. I’ll admit he was a favorite of mine, gotta love those lefties that don’t throw hard enough to break a pane of glass.
Jimmy Key’s place among Jay pitching leaders:
bWAR: 3rd, 29.7
ERA: 3rd (tie), 3.42
Wins 4th, 116
Winning %: 8th, .589
WHIP: 2nd, 1.196
Walks per 9 IP: 5th, 2.144
Games started: 4th, 317
Innings Pitched: 4th, 1695.2
Strikeouts: 6th, 944
Complete Games: 5th, 28